Mystery Ranch Blackjack Avalanche Airbag Backpack Review

Post by blogger | March 29, 2011      

In the gamble that avalanche terrain often is, airbag packs can increase your odds of survival by virtue of an impressive record of keeping slid backcountry skiers on top of debris instead of buried (the statistics are eye opening, to say the least). I like to stack the deck in my favor as much as possible, but I’m particular in what I like for a ski backpack. For me, the aptly named Blackjack fits the bill.

The Blackjack is made by Mystery Ranch in Bozeman, Montana, however the airbag components are made by Avi Vest, a manufacturer of airbags that caters to the snowmobile market and makes a nicely engineered system based on compressed air (3,000 psi, can be filled locally, or cylinder obtained from dealer or direct from Avi Vest). The airbag is located in the top bag of the pack, and you can remove it (and the air tank) when you don’t want to use the airbag system. I’ve found that to be a great feature, as some days you just don’t feel the extra weight of the airbag is worth the work.

No, I don't have a pillow strapped to my back

The Blackjack rucksack itself is a top loader design, with a zippered external shovel pocket, and a side zipper to access the main compartment. The pack has two pockets on the lid, one that holds the airbag, and another for storage.

My ideal ski daypack is a top loader with a draw string closure, an external shovel pocket, some sort of side zipper access, and a few zipper pockets on the hip belt. The Blackjack covers most of these bases, although it doesn’t have zipper pouches on the belt and it is heavy for a daypack. The pack uses Mystery Ranche’s Futura frame and yoke, which provide a burly and comfy system to carry loads, possibly overkill, but works well. Everything else about the pack is burly and durable, with large zippers to the two compartments, and strong X-pac fabric for the main bag. The shovel pocket has a cool new fabric that uses hundreds of little hard plastic dots to protect against abrasion. Ski edges wearing through the fabric on the back of a pack is a consistent problem I see in most packs.

The pocket containing the airbag is visible on the right, and the shovel pocket on the left.

I’ve now used the Blackjack for more than a month of backcountry skiing, and it has worked well. The removable airbag is a nice feature, and I’ve found myself taking it out for a few safe days where I didn’t want the weight. The first few times it was a bit of a puzzle to get it back together, but now I can do it fairly easily. The pocket that normally holds the airbag can be used for storage when the airbag isn’t in it, and I’ve even found myself putting a few nonessentials in there with the airbag (throw a chocolate bar in there to reward the people coming to rescue you if you trigger the airbag). I haven’t used the pack for much ski mountaineering, but the few times I have it carries all the equipment well. In particular, the Blackjack diagonal ski carry system is one of the few I’ve found that I haven’t had to modify to make it work when the pack isn’t full.

I’ve blown the Blackjack airbag off once while I was skiing to see what it felt like, and if it hindered my ability to ski at all. I felt significant extra air resistance when it was deployed, but I could still ski fine, so I don’t think it would hinder your ability to ski out of an avalanche. Deflating it requires you to have a special tool, although I was able to improvise one out of a ski pole tip. The bag packed easily back into the pocket, which is thoughtfully made slightly oversized. I went to a few shops before I found one that could refill the cylinder. I tried some dive shops first, but they didn’t have the right fitting, a paint ball shop was able to do it, and they didn’t even charge me. If you choose to have the cylinder filled locally, be aware of two issues: Take it out and fire it off when it’s super cold outside to make sure frozen condensation within the tank doesn’t muck up the blow-off system. Also, after you get the cylinder filled check to be sure it has enough pressure after it’s cooled down.

The pack does have a few drawbacks, one is of course the weight: 8.8 lbs with the airbag; 5.4 without. The weight of the airbag is understandable and not easy to reduce, but 5.4 lbs is heavy for a daypack — I don’t think I own another pack that weighs that much, including several overnight packs and my Denali expedition pack! The pocket on the top flap of the Blackjack is positioned so the zipper is on the bottom of the pocket when the pack is closed, so everything spills out of it when it is opened, unless you lay the pack down or open the top flap. The webbing that attaches the top flap could be a little longer, if I try to fit a rope or sleeping pad under it, they barely reach.

Another minor problem is the system that attaches the airbag to the pack seems overly complex. It uses a metal pin woven through webbing loops to hold the airbag in. I’m sure this is plenty strong, but it is a pain to use. I feel like something borrowed from the climbing world could be used and make it a whole lot simpler for backcountry skiing use.

Mystery ranch has made a strong entry into the brewing airbag pack wars (which in our opinion here at WildSnow will soon make the infamous avy beacon wars look like a water fight), and is one of my favorites of the ones I’ve evaluated for ski mountaineering. The pack design is great, and the removable airbag is integrated well. In summary, a terrific do-anything pack. (Available this fall.)

Our Blackjack backcountry skiing airbag firstlook.

WildSnow category: Avalanche Airbag Backpack Rucksacks


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13 Responses to “Mystery Ranch Blackjack Avalanche Airbag Backpack Review”

  1. David March 28th, 2011 10:15 pm

    Good review.

    The poundage is a date ender for me. I can go overnight in the summer with a total weight of under 9 pounds pretty easily. I live w/ heavier than I’d like ski packs in the winter, but these weights are crazy.

    I agree that the airbag invasion is coming, but until the weight comes down I’m sticking with a boring rucksack.

  2. Ryan March 29th, 2011 11:32 am

    Good review. I like these longer in-depth studies on various products and wildsnow is certainly the go-to resource for avy-bag beta.

    Maybe this was one of the 94 comments in the snowsports helmets thread so forgive me if it was but I do think it’s a little ironic that Lou’s “helmets aren’t worth it” article is followed up by an avy-bag review. Let’s see; they’re both heavy, relative to the alternative, they’re both expensive, again relative to the alternative and they both might save your life but might not make a lick of difference in many cases.

    How is one clearly worth it in terms of cost/weight and one isn’t? I think one could make a good arguement as many bc skiers do that helmets make more sense than an air-bag. Obviously it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation but juxtaposing these two articles next to each other would lead one to believe Lou has made his decision.

    Andrew Mclean seems to think a probe is not worth it. In some cases maybe he’s right. I don’t think there’s many clear cut avy safety decisions as all too often it depends.

    All interesting stuff to talk about though and gear to fondle.


  3. Trevor March 29th, 2011 12:13 pm

    “Take it out and fire it off when it’s super cold outside to make sure frozen condensation within the tank doesn’t muck up the blow-off system”

    This is a problem that needs a better explanation than the single sentence in the article. Water vapour condensing and freezing in the valve is a huge risk to the reliability of the system. Can you do some testing to see what temperature icing causes problems? Is the extra cooling from the expanding air enough to freeze the valve at warmer temperatures? Does the orientation of the cylinder while skiing or discharging affect it?

    Also, if you get it filled and test fire it at a super cold temperature as you suggest, won’t you have to fill it again before you can use it? How do you know that the new air isn’t wetter than what you test-fired?

    Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable relying on this airbag unless I could get it filled with -40 dewpoint dry air.

  4. Nick March 29th, 2011 3:03 pm

    The two issues with cold temps and airbag inflation are gas volume (shrinks in the cold), and moisture in the air (freezing). With regards to volume, make sure the gauge reads full at room temp, not when the cylinder is hot just after filling. In most cases this means you need to top off the cylinder. As for getting dry air, fire stations and dive shops tend to have better control of that than paintball shops.
    Louie has a good point on testing in cold conditions. You need to test the bag anyway, so why not when it’s super cold if you have the chance? (Yes, you would then have to refill). If you don’t feel comfortable with these variables, any of the manufacturers will mail you a filled one, and since they all have filling stations in the US, it takes no time at all. Super convenient.

  5. Patrick Odenbeck March 29th, 2011 4:47 pm

    It was below zero during the filming of this video

  6. Lou March 29th, 2011 5:54 pm

    Thanks Nick, indeed, the key is that the manufacturers have a good system for providing filled cylinders — and by all accounts they do.

    As for testing, my view is these devices should be triggered while you’re skiing downhill, in cold conditions so you’re doing it with gloves on as well as checking for any issues with the cold. But it’s a good idea to trigger at home after purchase as well, for that first familiarization/test. Main thing is, don’t hesitate to test as it’s important to get in the habit of reaching for the trigger!

  7. Lisa March 30th, 2011 6:12 am

    Nice review, Louie. Thanks for the info.

  8. Lou March 30th, 2011 7:25 am

    Trever and all, the Avi Vest system is triggered by a spring loaded hollow bayonet that pierces the cap on the tank. I suppose that’s a form of “valve” but condensation and subsequent ice inside the tank would in my view be unlikely to affect this. Nonetheless I thought it was worth a mention for folks having the cylinder refilled locally. My take is if I get my airbag cylinder filled at a paintball shop in Maui, then take it to 30 below zero conditions in Alaska, that would be a concern. Less extreme, and it’s worth testing and thinking about, but not a deal breaker in terms of local fills.

    Research and testing on all this stuff is ongoing. Just like ski helmets, lots of people are running around with avy airbags thinking they’ve got a an effective safety device in play. It is my fervent hope that such is true, but small things make a difference and tank icing is one such consideration.

  9. Trevor March 30th, 2011 9:43 am

    Thanks Lou, that design sounds a lot more robust than a mechanical valve, which is what I was hoping to hear. Does that mean you need a new cap every time you recharge it?

  10. Lou March 30th, 2011 10:31 am

    Trever, yes, actually pretty impressive of a system though a bit fiddly the first time you swap cylinders.

  11. Rory March 30th, 2011 10:44 am

    Mystery Ranch, BCA and Snowpulse all have just one airbag. I saw a friend of mine as he was taken in a slide and his airbag got punctured. Fortunately for him he was wearing an ABS pack which has two separate balloons. He said that he could still feel the effect of just one ballon helping him stay on top. Maybe it is a paten issue as ABS have come like this for some time now but to me it’s a no brainer. I’m sure I read somewhere that ABS made this development decision to avoid relying on the one airbag.
    Otherwise the Mystery Ranch offering looks good and a bit more useable as an actual pack than the ABS range in my opinion. But until there are two balloons I won’t trust anything else.

  12. Louie May 6th, 2011 12:02 am

    Trevor, the system has a small the metal disk that gets punctured every time the system is deployed. To reset it you replace the metal disk. The pack comes with a supply of about 5 disks, and you can order more.

  13. Lou May 6th, 2011 2:46 am

    Actually, I’d rather have three balloons and a helicopter hovering overhead as well (grin). Seriously, from what I hear it is very rare for the airbag to be punctured. More, look for airbags to be made out of fabric such as Dyneema within the next year or so, they’ll be plenty strong and even lighter!

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